Bees & Space
by Eddie Hill, North Kildare BKA
Did you know that on 25th December 1810 Lorenzo L Langstroth was born? This year celebrates the 207th anniversary of his birth. He is credited with having revolutionised the beekeeping industry with his 1852 patented moveable frame hive and his manual,” The Hive and the Honeybee “His discovery of bee space and the invention of the moveable frame hive in Philadelphia would change the face of beekeeping and earn him the title, “Father of American Beekeeping”.
In 1863 he became one of the first Americans to import Italian honeybees (Apis mellifera logistical) and it was queens from these bees that he and his son sold to beekeepers across the United States. Today the Italian bee is the most popular commercial Honey bee in North America.
In 1847 Langstroth retired from Beekeeping. He died in 1895 while giving a sermon at Wayne Avenue Presbyterian Church Dayton, Ohio where he lived with his daughter. It was while reading up on bee space and Langstroth, that I came across an article from November 3rd, 1957 and the launch of Laika a part Siberian husky who was found as a stray on Moscow streets before being signed up to the soviet space programme. Laika was launched into space on Sputnik 2 from Baikonur in Russia connected to a sophisticated life-support system.
She was said to have survived several days in space. Electrodes connected to her body provided information to ground control on the biological effects of space travel on her body. Laika was reported to have died when her life support batteries died after several days. It was 45 years later when the real story of what happened was released. Laika overheated in the cabin on the launch pad, panicked and died within five to seven hours of the launch. The space craft remained in orbit for 162 days then burned up in the atmosphere on 1st April 1958.
Animals were blasted into space aboard rockets to test if humans could survive there before the first manned space flights were attempted. Later animals were flown into space to test the effects of microgravity and what effect space flight would have on them. There has been records of seven different countries sending animals into space, these flights would have included dogs, monkeys and insects. It is the insects that I will concentrate on here.
There have being several incidents where flies have accidentally travelled in space as stowaways on the spaceships before launch. But the first recording of insects in space for experimental projects was Fruit flies. They were the first insects officially recorded to be launched into space on February 20th, 1947 from New Mexico. They were launched to an altitude of 108 km in a captured Nazi V-2 Rocket and were recovered alive by parachute. The purpose of this experiment was to test the effects of radiation exposure at high altitudes.
I could only find three accounts of Honey bees being launched introspected first honey bees to be launched into space on a space shuttle was not until 1982 when an experiment devised by Todd E Nelson who won a national competition to design experiments to be carried out on the space shuttle. The 14 Honey bees launched on the mission were accompanied by some fly and moth pupae.
The aim of the experiment waste observes and compares the flight responses of the three different insects. The honey bees were unable to cling to the plastic surfaces of the box they were in and unable to fly normally tumbled in the weightlessness of space. The lack of relative motion visual stimuli necessary to maintain flight may have been responsible for them floating and not flying also the food supply was inadequate and may have led to fatigue with resulting poor flight control responses and floating. Both the moths and fly larvae emerged in space and survived the trip the moths mated and produced young on their return to earth.
The flies seemed to enjoy the trip and were the first members of the mile-high club while the honey bees were all dead on returning to earth possible due to starvation. https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19830025642.pdf
The next launch of bees into space took place in 1984 when 3400 honeybees and one queen flew on the Challenger space shuttle mission. This experiment was designed to see if bees would build comb in microgravity.
On their first day in space the bees attempted to fly but collided with the side walls of the specially built chamber an aluminium “Bee Enclosure Module” (BEM). This experiment was designed to compare the size, shape, volume and wall thickness of two honeycomb structures one flown in orbit and the other control colony back on earth. During the flight, the bees constructed 200cmsq comb and filed it with sugar syrup.
By the end of the seven day mission the bees had adapted well with the bees building comb and the queen laying around 35 eggs, but none survived the transfer to a hive upon their return to earth. There were no differences reported between the comb built in space and that built on earth.
In 1979 a paper entitled “Ecological Considerations for Space Colonies,” which was published in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. In it they argued that “the question of space colonization should be explored,” though they thought one should build a closed ecosystem on Earth before trying to build one in space.
After all, “if stable and productive closed ecosystems could not be made to function on Earth they certainly would not function in orbit, “and definitely not on the moon or on Mars. Their paper became the cornerstone of what is likely the most expensive ecological experiment ever, namely the Biosphere 2 project in Oracle, Arizona. The selected crew entered the sealed artificial world on September 26, 1991, the project was dogged by controversy and bad press. The mission was accused of being “New Age drivel masquerading as science, “while the participants were accused of being in a cult.
In 1992, the hungry scientists started eating emergency food supplies that had not been grown inside the bubble. Levels of CO2 fluctuated “wildly” and many of the pollinating insects died. Nevertheless, the team completed the mission, emerging into the outside world after two years of solitude in September 26,1993. Pollination was vital for the production of food in Biosphere 2 and the task was assigned to both bees and hummingbirds (although bats were also considered). Bees, which navigate and find flowers with the help of ultraviolet light, could not adjust to life inside B2, as the glass structure was designed to filter out most Ovary’s.
A few panes of the structure allowed UV light to enter, as this was necessary for reptiles inside the experiment. The disoriented bees were attracted to these and would smash into them. By the end of the experiment in 1993, biodiversity inside B2 was significantly reduced, with pollinator species hit particularly hard. There were no surviving bees or hummingbirds.
The absence of these animals meant that a critical ecosystem service had to be simulated: plants had to be hand pollinated, extending the work days of the humans significantly. In February 2003 NASA launched the Spice bees on the Space Shuttle “Columbia” one of six student experiments flying on the STS-107 as part of the Space Technology and Research Students or STARS, programme. Carpenter bees were used in this experiment.
Female carpenter bees bore tunnels in wood to create nests for their young. Students at Liechtenstein gymnasium Liechtenstein, hypothesize that the lack of gravity in space might cause the bees to make tunnels of different shapes than they do on earth. Thebes were housed in a special Balsawood habitat for the flight. The students were waiting to weigh their block of wood and see how much they had eaten on their space flight during the 16 days they spent in space. Sadly, the spaceship burned up on re-entry killing all seven crew members on board. A NASA investigation blamed damage to the shuttle’s heat shield soon after launch as the cause of the accident.
In 2012 the University of Guelph in Canada published a research article on the Atmospheric pressure requirements of Bumblebees (Bombus impatiens) as pollinators of lunar or Martian Greenhouse grown food, (it is available on line as a PDF to read.) In their abstract to the research article they said that, “We found that when bumblebees were exposed to an environment of 50 kPa or higher, they maintained foraging activity levels and a foraging efficiency similar to that exhibited under ambient conditions. However, their activity levels and efficiency were decreased when exposed to an environment lower than 50 kPa. In these experiments, the partial pressure of oxygen was reduced in proportion to the total pressure. When oxygen was returned to an ambient partial pressure of 20 kPa at low total pressures, activity improved. Our results demonstrate that bumblebees could function well as pollinators in environments with total atmospheric pressure of 50 kPa or higher, and activity improves at lower levels as long as oxygen levels are adequate.
“Finally, in September 2014 Fruit flies made a return to space aboard the International Space Station (ISS)according to a NASA web page, “Fruit flies and people are genetically similar. About 77% of known human disease genes have a recognisable match in the genetic code of fruit flies and 50% of fly protein sequences have mammalian analogues”. That is why they have been used in genetic research labs as they are a good substitute for people and can reproduce quickly so that many generations can be studied in a short time. This flight was predicted to allow Scientists to explore the long-term effects of space flight on humans. Shofar, no results are available.
So, after nearly 70 years since the first insects were sent aloft we are still none the wiser as to whether we could survive in space long term or if pollinating insects could survive and reproduce pollinate food for the survival of spacemen/women. On December 11, 2017 president Donald Trump signed his administration’s first space policy directive which formally directs NASA to focus on returning humans to the moon.
President Trump signed the order during a ceremony in the oval office, surrounded by members of the recently re-established national Space Council which provides recommendations to the president on space policy. Is it possible that bees could return to space on this mission?